Mythical Man Month cover

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The Mythical Man-Month: Too obsolete to be useful today

Review of “The Mythical Man-Month” by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr.

One cannot venture far into the world of software engineering literature without hearing about The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. The book is consistently hailed as a classic, so in my quest to grow as a software practitioner I decided to shell out and see what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, being written in 1975 (re-issued in 1995 with minor changes to the original material), it seems so out of date now that I doubt it can have more than academic appeal.

I found the book to be mostly 300 pages of anachronisms, such as machine-time sharing on systems now more than 40 years old, secretarial support for the chief programmers (“secretaries” meaning a “keypunch operators” as I understand it), and the general notion of a world where an unlimited supply of top programmers are available to every organization.

While Brooks touches on the timeless issues of scheduling, documentation, and maintainability, the discussion does not seem to highlight any salient points relevant to the modern developer. That might be either because Brooks’ lessons have been tightly woven into current best practices, or because it’s simply been superseded – I don’t know which is correct.

The only point I found to be somewhat interesting is the one he makes about conceptual integrity. Brooks states that in order for a system to be produced efficiently, it has to have a conceptual integrity that can only be achieved if the architecture comes from the mind of only one or two people. Brooks suggests that if the work is too large for two, then they can create the top-level architecture with rigorously defined interfaces, and the sub-projects can then be delegated to others, and so on, so long as each new level is designed by one or two people to ensure conceptual integrity at each level. Whether this is actually accurate or relevant today I am too inexperienced to say.

Summary

Surely anything still worth retaining from this book has been said countless times since, with much more relevant and recent examples. That is not to say that the book was ever without merit, not at all; I have no doubts that this was a highly important book in the 70’s and 80’s, and thus indirectly also today by helping the field of software engineering move forward. I just highly doubt The Mythical Man Month will make you a better programmer today. Go read Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering instead.

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